Tag Archives: england

It’s Hard to be Grumpy in London


Daffodils blooming and Albert Memorial in background in Hyde Park, London, March 23, 2018.

Well, not if you’re a kid and you got up way too early, I suppose. And I guess my travel companions would argue that there were times Friday when I was a bit frayed at the edges, so maybe the title should be “it’s hard to stay grumpy in London.”

I like visiting large cities. The museums and shops of Minneapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans, Vancouver—I’ve been there and would willingly go back. New York City is prominent on my list of places I want to go, and if you’re planning a trip to D.C. any time, I would love to be with you.

In particular, I hope to get back to San Francisco.

But though I love all the cities on my continent, London seems like a special place. It’s so steeped in the world—more of an international crossroads than any American city. It bears the marks of its sometimes volatile, violent history. It seems a bit cleaner than many North American metros. Despite its vast size—London is a huge, sprawling city—it is also human in scale, with narrow walkways, bike paths and streets.

It’s a city of glittering, ugly new skyscrapers. But in other areas, the buildings are only 4 or 5 stories high—creating a crowded cityscape that is nonetheless more light and airy than many central urban areas.

We were lucky this year to spend spring break in England. Friday was our full day in London. We arrived Thursday and depart Saturday, and I am thrillingly awaiting my first visit to the British Museum today. Thursday was the Science Museum, an accidental stroll through Imperial College, Hyde Park and a pretentious museum in the Greenwich neighborhood that was actually a extensive advertisement for how self-consciously cool the real estate in the Greenwich Peninsula is.

The underground is loud and crowded and smells of oil and age, and I love it. As my wife and two granddaughters were on our own for the morning, my son-in-law had specified the route—take the Jubilee Line to Green Park, and switch there to the Victoria Line for the tube to South Kensington Station.

I was a little paranoid about riding the wrong way, but as Audrey pointed out, if that happens you just hop off the train and take one headed the other way.

The Science Museum, when we got there, was crowded and noisy. I spent my time chasing after grandchildren rather than strolling through the technology exhibits, which would have been my choice. Still, playing with grandchildren is a pleasant way to while away a morning, and it was a prelude to a glorious afternoon.

March in Iowa is a transition month, a mix of winter and spring that will bring 10 inches of snow today. While England saw a rare snowfall earlier in March, and the weather has been cool, it’s still very much spring here, with flowers in bloom and green grass, even if the trees have not yet woken from winter slumber. Friday afternoon was strolling in Hyde Park.

If I came here with just adults, I would be tempted to rent bicycles to see more of the park, but what I did experience on a pretty spring afternoon convinces me that one of the glories of Britain, besides the Beatles and Monty Python, is parks. Their playgrounds tend to be wood and metal and sturdy and old-fashioned, with swings and teeter totters and dangerous things that would not ever be built today in North America, where playgrounds are plastic and padded and safe and dull by comparison.

The day was also filled with food. We had lunch at a quick food shop that defies description. With its rice base and spices, I considered it Asian, but my son-in-law says it was a French fusion place. Whatever. It was filling and good and definitely not McDonalds.

And when we grew tired in the afternoon and had the early rush hour Underground journey back to our temporary apartment by the Thames, there was a stop for sticky toffee pudding. If you haven’t, perhaps the expense and time of a flight to London is worth your while to experience that dessert. I liked it, although, in full disclosure, I know from personal experience that my daughter and son-in-law can whip up an even tastier version of this treat.

The Brits don’t have a great reputation for culinary genius, but in my experience, eating in England features delightful dining. True, they invented beans on toast as a meal, but they also created fish and chips and sticky toffee pudding.

Well, God save the Queen and all of her subjects. I visited a pub in Norwich earlier this week and hoisted several pints. Cheers to England and to London, which right now is about my favorite city in all the world.

Of course, my opinion may be tainted. We’ve been hosted by my delightful oldest daughter and her family. There are two active, bouncy girls to play with and a baby boy to cuddle. That and Hyde Park—what more can one ask of a great city?


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On the Bucket List: Return to London


On walkway across the Thames, looking back towards St. Paul’s.

I’m sure it’s not a shock that there was too much to see and do in London that it would not fit in a one-day visit.

Last week, my wife and I were hosted in London by our daughter and son-in-law. We took a train from Norwich Saturday morning, visited two museums that day, walked about central London Sunday morning, and returned by rail to Norwich Sunday afternoon.


Sunshine Sunday morning.

Along the way, we had a very nice Easter dinner in a local restaurant. It was a very pleasurable visit, and I thought about all kinds of things I would like to do now in London that 24 hours would not accommodate:

•    Visit the British Museum. I was in the same town as the Rosetta Stone, but didn’t stop by to say hi.
•    Ride the Eye. Easter weekend was a busy time at any tourist attraction in London anyway, so not standing in long lines for a giant Ferris Wheel was, all things considered, a good move. But it would be nice to spend a few days in London and maybe ride that thing on a random Tuesday or Wednesday morning when the crowds and lines are merely large and not hugemongus. This particular ambition, by the way, may come as a surprise to my kin and friends because I have a well-deserved reputation of being terrified of heights in general and Ferris Wheels in particular. But just as I can fly to London despite the clear irrational nature of the activity (you want me to strap myself into a pressurized metal tube that flies 10 miles high and trust it will both ascend and descend safely?), so I think I could screw my courage to the sticking point and ride in the London Eye, stealing brief glances at the city in between shutting my eyes or staring fixedly at my feet.
•    Do art. I would have to research which museums to stop by, but I generally love art museums, and didn’t stop in any during my brief, first visit to London.

Not that London is paradise. There is a thing called “weather” and it doesn’t play to the city’s strengths. There is a saying in Iowa that if you don’t like the weather just wait 10 minutes—in our volatile climate, the same week or day can feature warm sun, cool rain and snow, as this week testifies.

London, based on my small sample, is more so. We were blessed with sunshine Sunday for our stroll along the Thames, but we were also cursed with sudden, nasty cold rains that had us scurrying for shelter in doorways or under bridges. We saw sun, wind, rain, hail, and, briefly, snow—all in the course of one three-hour stroll.

At least we had some sun.


Granddaughter peeks out at cold, heavy rain. We are sheltering in a church doorway.

Also, London is also not the cleanest of cities. It’s not drab and black and smoggy as it used to be, by accounts I’ve read, and I’m grateful for that, but the Brits could learn to use the waste bin a bit more efficiently. Then again, to be honest, I’m not sure London is as dirty or dirtier than any large American city, where there are plenty of litterbugs, too. Maybe Norwich, a much smaller place, spoiled me a bit.

London is also full of Londoners. You have to get used to being in a crowd most of the time, which an Iowan isn’t. I didn’t’ find that to be a nasty or unpleasant experience, just a bit of a new sensation.

Of course, we were visiting the Natural History Museum and the Science Museums on Easter weekend, as was, apparently, most of the inhabitants of the small island nation were London is located. So crowds were partly an artifact of where we were when we were there—and on many parts of our walk—the journey back from the Easter restaurant, for instance—we had the narrow, inadequate sidewalks of the old imperial capital mostly to ourselves.

London! Dinner at the Chop House, dinosaur bones and old planes, fantastic architecture and a pleasant tidal estuary to stroll along and over—you are, all in all, a wonderful city. It didn’t hurt that I was surrounded by family during the visit either—it’s always nice to be in a strange place with familiar people who know their way around, and I am grateful to Matt and Amanda (and Lizzie and Juliet and Audrey) for sharing the experience with me.

I will treasure many memories. I was very enchanted by the underground and the rail system in Britain—it’s a country that makes traveling without a car an easy thing, something that the U.S. should look into sometime. The museums that we did visit were fascinating, especially the Natural History Museum where we got to say hello to Charles Darwin who was taxidermied and placed in a hallway there (not really, it’s just a statue, but this is April 1).


Charles Darwin, stuffed, mounted and placed on stairs landing.

At one tube station, there were lifts to take you to the street. While Amanda and Matt and family wisely rode those lifts, my wife and I walked up the stairs.


Looking back at many, many stairs I have just ascended. Way down there is a tube station. Way, way down there.

The sign warned us that the number of stairs was the equivalent of a 15-story building. I don’t know about that—maybe British stories, which, like everything else in Britain besides museums are smaller than their American equivalent—but it was a hike. Better to look back on than forward to, I’ll give it that. We made it, and frankly we enjoyed the long hikes—and were very impressed at how well our young grandchildren did doing much of their London adventure on foot.

London! I hope to see you again.

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June Needs Slowing Down—I’m Having Too Much Fun

Two English granddaughters in the pool today.

Two English granddaughters in the pool today.

June is flying by way too quickly, which means I must be having a good time.

What has been occupying my time? All sorts of things:

  • Making plans for the World War I series at Mount Mercy. Scheduling is a real pain.
  • Taking piano lessons and practicing the piano. Honestly, at least a little.
  • Laying plans for next school year.
  • Hosting visitors from across the pond.

That final point is the reason I most wish I could slow June down. My daughter, son-in-law and their two daughters are visiting us right now. They live in Norwich, England, where he is a plant scientist and she is an artist and the collaborator on the “Princess Ninja” stories.

And, of course, they have two little ninja princesses of their own.

They are both charming little girls, and both are firecrackers wrapped in dynamite. They are in young childhood, a time of life full of energy and big mood swings. Mostly, they’ve been happy, and I’m very happy they’ve been around.

Miss Lizzie eats a cupcake during an unbirthday party with her sister and cousins.

Miss Lizzie eats a cupcake during an unbirthday party with her sister and cousins.

Miss Lizzie greets me almost every morning with a hug. She speaks in a polite, soft English-American accent that sounds very refined. She wears an almost perpetual grin, but also has a wild light in her eyes that you do have to watch out for.

Lizzie is going to turn 5 this fall.

Juliet, the junior partner, is a bit more reserved than her sister. But for her age, she is also bigger and louder. Lizzie has been in the British school system, and sounds almost refined. Juliet still lives mostly at home, and her accent is broader and slightly more Americanized.

If the two were cast in a Hollywood movie, Elizabeth would be the princess and Juliet would be her amusing, wisecracking, cockney-accented sidekick.

Juliet is a star, darling.

Juliet is a star, darling.

Juliet will be 3 this fall.

They leave tomorrow. Luckily, this time they won’t go far—only to Ames and they are coming back. But, too soon, they will fly back to England.

I’ll be sad to see them go. The house will be quite a bit quieter; our weekly output of garbage and recycling will be lower. I may be able to do more bicycle riding to train for RAGBRAI and more prep work for school next year.

But I’m sure I will miss June. I’ll miss the pool play, the un-birthday party, the extra use of the sandbox and swing set in our backyard, the short lives of the feeder fish, the reading, the horse rides, even the hunts for the elusive sweeties. Mostly, I will miss Juliet and Lizzie and Amanda and Matt.

And, by the way, Amanda, I’m one up in the awesome trip blogging contest!

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The Roll Bake-Off And Other Important Events

The nap.

The nap.

On Thursday night, following a long journey from Norwich, England to Amsterdam, then Minneapolis and, finally, to the Eastern Iowa Airport, Amanda and family arrived in Cedar Rapids.

The house will be full again for the next few weeks, as my eldest daughter, her husband and two little girls are keeping us company. We have yet to figure out what we’re doing and where we are going during that time, although I hope we’ll see most of the family in Iowa at one time or another.

Cousins meet baby cousin.

Cousins meet baby cousin.

Anyway, we had a sibling reunion today. Jon, wish you could have been here, but all the others made it.

The play parachute and plastic balls were a hit. Clementines are popular fruit with all of the young set who have been weaned (several have not). Through the miracle of Skype, the English children don’t treat us as strangers at all, and the cousins have been having lots of fun.

After lunch, I even fell asleep on a love seat, with a granddaughter who had crawled on top of me to hear some books read and who also fell asleep.

Play ball!

who Play ball!

For lunch, we had chili and cinnamon rolls. Katy brought over a pan, and I made a double batch. It was dubbed the roll bakeoff—she made her dough in a bread machine, I used my more traditional method. Her rolls turned out lighter, but mine had a pleasant, crusty texture. I think it was a tie on baking. She won on frosting, since she was generous with homemade cream cheese frosting, while I merely opened a can.

Well, I’m looking forward to more adventures. I’ll have a lot of grading to complete by Monday, but then most of the week can be devoted to family fun. I think that will be nice.


More ball play.

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This is Norwich …

Lizzie and Audrey

Audrey reads a book to Lizzie at the children's section of the city centre public library in Norwich, England.

Fortunately, no blitz to report. It’s day two of your correspondent’s visit to Norwich, England.

As expected, playing with the grandchildren has been the highlight. Lizzie apparently remembers Grampa Joey, as she calls me, and Mama, and her grandmother is called.

Juliette isn’t sure who I am yet, but she is a social and agreeable baby, and can easily be coaxed into a smile.

So far, the trip has featured several satisfying walks, as well as playtimes and various parks. If the whole plant scientist gig goes south, Matt and Amanda could open a very nice restaurant—the eating has been good. I tasted borscht for the first time, and have decided that beets are edible.


Roof line in residential Norwich--closely packed townhouses are the norm.

Some other observations on life on the eastern side of the pond:

  • Houses in Norwich are tiny, by American standards. Matt and Amanda’s three-bedroom townhouse would fit in some basement rumpus rooms. Yet, it feels quite large enough for a small family—in architectural terms, I suppose I think it’s the American standards that make less sense. The houses in Norwich are mostly connected in long rows, with tiny fenced front gardens and small fenced back gardens. Despite this, there is more trees and open space than I expected in urban England, which is a pleasant surprise.
  • Buildings here are older, interesting and much more muted in hue. Brick is a very dark red—common American red bricks are brighter and redder. The sidewalks here are either very dark grey cement blocks or, more commonly, what appears to be road tar mixed with rock. The streetscape is just a lot darker, as a result. Not in some unpleasant, dour way—the darker hues don’t seem somber, just different.
  • Park equipment is sturdy and serious looking. They go in for more metal and thick wood. Swing sets here look like they are built to withstand gale force winds, which in this part of the world, they probably are. The equipment looks “old school” to American eyes—but not overly dangerous. In fact, I’ve been impressed at the number of parents and kids at playgrounds—parks are smaller here, but much busier.
  • Drivers seem more polite here. Streets are very narrow, so when walking, you’re very close to traffic. But, if you step into a crosswalk, the cars all stop for you. Bikers are common, and sometimes can whiz by and startle you, but for the most part, bikers are considerate of pedestrians, too. Norwich is more compact than Cedar Rapids, and people here walk more. City Centre, what the downtown of Norwich is called, is small shops and busy sidewalks, plus an ancient and colorful central market. It would be hard to visit Cedar Rapids and not have a car to get around in. While I’m sure there would be times when an auto would be handy, doing Norwich by foot is fine.
  • The city library is nice.I liked the system they have in their children’s section—there are bins of unsorted children’s books around the walls. That would not aid you if you’re looking for a particular book, but it’s meant for kids to browse in. Having such accessible books for kids makes sense. Book reviews by 8 and 9 year olds were posted on the wall. The kids illustrate like kids, but have excellent penmenship and are very literate.
    Amanda and Juliette

    Amanda and Juliette, out for a stroll in a play area near a school.

    Anyway, no doubt I will write more later. The visit and the company and the food have been excellent.


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No Flying Cars or Personal Servant Robots, But We Have Skype

Skype call

Talking and seeing loved ones in Norwich, England--Juju, Amanda and Lizzie on Skype. Matt was cooking.

It’s interesting to look back on the 20th Century and see what people imagined our lives would be like now.

So much of what was imagined didn’t come true. Robots are indeed a major force in our lives, but not because they perform household chores (although there are robot vacuum cleaners) but because they build our cars.

Which, usually, don’t fly.

The evolution of the computer was different than what as imagined before the 1970s—the coming importance of computers was foretold, but usually they were growing bigger and bigger and smarter and smarter, not smaller and smaller and smarter and smarter.

Skype image

Another Skype view. Amanda watches the silly sisters, and so do Grandma and Grandpa.

And, then there were video phones. They have come to pass, not as imagined. If you see a cutie in a bar, you can send an image of her to your friends instantly through your cell—not that I have ever done that, but it’s theoretically what could happen. We didn’t imagine the problem of teen “sexting.”

Video phones, when they were foretold, were imagined like household phones of the time. Yet, today, with a daughter in Norwich, England, we most often converse with her while we see her, via Skype.

What a subtle, but important, change. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a room with Lizzie, but she knows me and has come to call me “Grandpa Joey.”

I remember the first time we used Skype it was the semester Jon was studying in Spain. We had an odd headphone thing that we plugged into our computer and used it to talk via the internet.

Now we have webcams and video. The 21st Century video phone call has arrived, not exactly as imagined, but as an important laptop addition.

Still, it will be nice in 6 weeks to see Amanda, Matt, Elizabeth and Juliet in person. Video phone calls are good, but they aren’t quite the same as being there.

Kermit slipper

Those in the 20th Century could not have imagined how 21st Century man warms his feet.


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Why I Love A Parade, Sort Of

I attended the Swamp Fox parade today in Marion, Iowa, and it was what you expect of such a parade.

A few bands.  Lots of cars, some cool and old, some merely borrowed because they are convertibles.

Clowns.  Even though I know many goodhearted people are clowns, still, when you encounter them, why do they always seem a little creepy?

Shriners.  Even though I know many goodhearted people are Shriners, yadda yadda, you know the rest.

Candy. Lots of candy. I don’t recall in my youth that parades were such love fests of sugar, and I’m not wild about the trend.  I was attending the parade with three cute grandchildren (and their mother), and we were near Marion High School, the starting point, which meant bags were full and ammo was aplenty for sweets chuckers.

Lots of sweets got chucked in my general direction, granted, none intended for me, but I am of mixed mind about being pelted with sweets.  Tootsie Rolls are OK in small numbers, but the parade quickly exceeded my TR capacity.  Smarties, ditto, and they smart more, too.

And I always worry a bit.  Some youth groups were full of very poor candy tossers, with the result that the candy was left only vaugely near the side of the road—much in the middle of the street, there apparently just as trodding fodder.  As I note in my movie, it feels a bit as if the street were being baited to draw small children into the way of horses and tractors and Shriners and clowns other creepy things.

Well, before you say “bah, humbug,” let me clarify that I think parades (and Shriners and clowns, for that matter) are fine.  A dandy piece of Americana.

But, I think it helps to be the right age to appreciate the charms of a parade, and I’m definitely not in the parade demographic anymore.  Perhaps when I’m older, particularly if I could arrange a parade to pass by a beer garden where the limes are nice, the Corona is cold and I’ve passed by my third bottle or so—then, I think, a parade would be much more charming.

And it was fun to watch it with grandkids.  Tristan got the idea, quickly, that candy was a projectile weapon, and while parade participants were busy tossing sweets to him, he had the chutzpah to return fire vigorously.

And it was a bit fun to see groups of cheerleaders and dance academies.  You do wonder, a bit, why.  Why are these activities so important that they attract time and treasure, and there aren’t say, youth drama troupes passing by?  Hmmm.  The churches got to me, after a while.  Something about the awkwardly costumed characters just soured me on organized religion.  They were down there hawking salvation like the politicians who were pushing pamphlets to voters.


Anyway, it was a bright, warm day, the parade was fun even if candy-filled and I did like the spectacle of it.  I look forward to enjoying more in the future—especially as my grandkids get into prime parade years, say 6 to 8 or so.

Skyped with Amanda today, and she noted that they had been to one British parade in Norwich, England, where they live–and it was fun simply because in the UK they don’t follow small-town American parade conventions, and after seeing drag queens and dragons, she felt the exhilarating experience of wondering “what could possibly be next?”

Maybe that’s what the Swamp Fox needs.  Some surprises.  Throw in some drag queens and dragons. Or serve more Corona.

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